A group of 12 high schoolers sat in a circle in a rehearsal space at the Mark Taper Forum.
"What makes your character happy?" Andi Chapman asks the students, all finalists in the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
"I think that Young Blood is happy when he's acknowledged ..." Max Toubes, who is performing a monologue from Wilson's play "Jitney," begins to respond. Chapman, a coach for the competition, interjects and asks him to answer the question in the first person, as if he is his character.
"I am happiest when Rena and the other people in my life acknowledge me for the good things that I've done," Toubes continues.
The students have have spent months getting into the heads of their characters ahead of the Los Angeles regional monologue competition, hosted by the Center Theatre Group. It's a remarkable opportunity for aspiring actors. They will perform Monday night at the Mark Taper Center. The winner of the regional contest gets to perform their piece on stage at the August Wilson Theatre in New York at the national finals in May.
But prizes aside, the competition also gives students the opportunity to develop a real connection to the classic material.
"The foundation for this program was finding your song and empowering the students to find whatever that song is for them in their lives, in what they want to say to the world in that voice, that they are in touch with that," Chapman said.
Students can choose works from August Wilson’s Century Cycle, 10 plays that examine the African-American experience through 10 decades. Chapman says many of the characters are wrestling with finding their song and through this competition the students are, too.
"Even though they’re very young, playing these 35 and 70-year-old people, their voice means something," said Chapman. "So in the midst of finding the truth in these monologues, they can find their song."
The competition is open to 10th, 11th and 12th graders, from all backgrounds and with all levels of acting experience. Many of the students are from performing arts schools and have a good bit of experience getting into character. For a few, this is their first real foray into the world of acting.
Marjorie McNary, 17, John Muir High School in Pasadena
Monologue: Black Mary from 'Gem of the Ocean'
Marjorie is a self-professed drama queen in daily life, but say she gets extremely nervous in front of crowds. She found out about the competition through a community arts program, where a mentor encouraged her to audition. These are her first acting classes and she looks at the warmup routines and vocal exercises they do at rehearsal skeptically.
Over the past few months, she's loosened up in the classes and has allowed the theater technique to improve her performance.
"To me I understood the monologue, but the question was, did I really understand it?" she said. "And working with Andi, she helped me break down the monologue and I say it like I — it’s not like I didn’t mean it — but say it like I really understand it and I’m sure and confident."
In her monologue, her character is standing up to an aunt who is constantly nagging and criticizing her.
"I relate to her a lot because growing up was really not easy for me and people doubted me a lot and said I wasn’t good for anything and I was just gonna end up like my mom and stuff like that," she said.
Marjorie’s been in foster care most of her life. She says her mom left when she was 3 and she now lives on Skid Row.
She's started devouring Wilson's work and says she hopes to read all of his plays. She says the messages are relevant.
"Basically I think what it's saying is that people have a hard life and everybody’s life is a challenge. We have to find a way to get around these obstacles and go for our dreams."
Max Toubes, 17, Los Angeles Center For Enriched Studies
Monologue: Youngblood from 'Jitney'
Max's isn't new to performance, but he's new to acting. His background is in spoken word and he found out about this competition through the teen literacy program Get Lit. He's spent a lot of time working on pushing his spoken-word style aside and getting into the character's head.
"Maybe there’s a certain inflection where I like to start with my levels low and then bring them up and then bring them back down by the end which is almost like a cliché slam thing to do," he said.
He says a couple of things led him to choose this monologue. First and foremost: language. "It was one of the only ones I could find that didn’t have derogatory language that I didn’t feel comfortable saying."
You can’t edit the text in any way for this competition. And Max, who’s white, says he didn’t feel comfortable saying the N-word, which is in a lot of Wilson’s work. He decided on a piece from the play "Jitney," set in the 1970s. His character has been toiling as a cab driver to make a better life for his family and he's pleading with his girlfriend to understand how hard he's work.
When Max chose the piece, he says he was having some troubles with his girlfriend. (He says things are all good now).
"Obviously I’m not trying to buying a house, I don’t have a kid. We were just fighting and it felt like I could channel that energy," he said. "Because I wasn’t just angry, I was upset."
He says he has a vastly different life experience and perceptive from his character but he views that truth as a responsibility.
"Everything that August Wilson writes coming from a perspective that I couldn’t possibly understand, just being who I am. But I always feel like as a performer and as a poet that if I can use my privilege as a white, male American, if I can be the voice of the less privileged that the privileged will listen to and change their mind than I’m doing my job as a performer."
Joey Aquino, 16, Los Angeles High School of the Arts
Monologue: Boy Willie from 'The Piano Lesson'
At his school, students can choose between design and acting and Joey just recently decided to go down the acting path.
"I just thought that acting was another class I have to take," he said. "I never knew that I would actually get into it and start doing these after school activities."
He says his parents never thought it could really be a career option for him until they saw this monologue.
"That’s when they were shocked," he said.
The Piano Lesson is set in the 1930s and revolves around a black family and a feud over a piano. His character, Boy Willie, is standing up to his sister and making an argument to sell the family piano. Joey says he and his real-life sister fight all the time and that's what drew him to this piece.
"How I usually get into character is whenever I think about just one of those times when I was extremely frustrated with my sister that she didn't understand what I was trying to tell her, that's the character that emerges with Boy Willie himself."
This play is set in the 1930s. Even though Joey comes from a very different time and cultural background, the plot lines are relatable. "I usually just look into the whole perspective of the writer. Because if there’s sense of relation that you can relate to that has to do with family no matter what culture you're from, and no matter what race you're from, if you guys have the same type of problems in an everyday family, that’s something you can relate to automatically."